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Ethiopia Political Prisoner

Happy New Year Birtukan Invictus (Unconquered)!

Alemayehu G. Mariam

The great Nelson Mandela said, “In my country we go to prison first and then become President.” He assured the masters of the apartheid system, “You may succeed in delaying, but never in preventing the transition of South Africa to a democracy.” On the occasion of the Ethiopian New Year (2003) celebrated on September 11, I contemplate the words of Mandela as I admiringly think of Birtukan Midekssa, (Ethiopia’s No. 1 political prisoner and first ever political party leader), and the prospects of Ethiopia’s eventual transition from dictatorship to democracy.

In December 2008, Birtukan’s “pardon” from a kangaroo court conviction was revoked and her life sentence reinstated. She was literally snatched from the streets and thrown in solitary confinement for six months, despite a court ruling that such punishment was a violation of her constitutional rights. She is denied access to visitors except for her aging mother and five-year old daughter, despite a court order granting her visitor access without restrictions. She has been the object of ridicule by dictator-in-chief Meles Zenawi who has characterized her as a “chicken” who did herself in and an idle prisoner sitting around and “putting on weight”.

Mandela said, “Prison itself is a tremendous education in the need for patience and perseverance. It is above all a test of one’s commitment.” It is comforting to know that Birtukan is receiving “a tremendous education” at Kality “Unversity” Federal Prison where she continues to face daily humiliation, isolation, degradation and dehumanization. But Birtukan perseveres and shall certainly overcome. To paraphrase William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus” (Unconquered), for nearly two years Birtukan has been shackled in Zenawi’s “pit of wrath and tears” and faced the “horror” of solitary confinement and degradation without “wincing or crying out loud.” Her “head has been bloodied, but unbowed.” Though she faces the “menace of the years” in prison, she remains unafraid because she is the “mistress of her fate and the captain of her soul.”

It was in prison that Mandela realized the true meaning of freedom:

It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.

The Prisoner of the Prisoners of Hate, Prejudice and Narrow-Mindedness

It is remarkable how Birtukan’s views mirror Mandela’s. In all of my conversations with her during her visit to the U.S. in the Fall of 2007, (when she led the official delegation of the Coalition of Unity and Democracy [Kinijit]), her Mandela-like compassion and understanding of her jailors and tormentors was instructive and humbling. Like Mandela, Birtukan has steely resolve and unflinching commitment to the rule of law, democracy and human rights. But her political convictions never overpowered her deep compassion for others, including those who continue to mistreat and abuse her. Like Mandela who showed good will to the apartheid masters, Birtukan also shows genuine empathy and understanding for the ruthless dictators who are themselves “locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness”. Like Mandela, that makes Birtukan one of the most unique prisoners on the planet: A prisoner of the prisoners of hatred, prejudice and narrow-mindedness. Like Mandela, Birtukan understands that she must first free the prisoners of hatred, prejudice and narrow-mindedness before she can free herself or her country.

Like Mandela, Birtukan also hungers for freedom. Her hunger for freedom is not just for herself; it is for the freedom of all the Ethiopian people regardless of ethnicity, language, religion and region. Above all, she knows all too well “that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed.”

My New Year’s Resolution

It is customary in free societies to make resolutions for the new year. Accordingly, I pledge to continue to call attention and raise awareness of Birtukan’s unjust imprisonment in the court of world opinion, unceasingly continue to demand her release and the release of all political prisoners in Ethiopia, and urge all freedom-loving people throughout the world to do whatever they can to help secure the release of all political prisoners in Ethiopia.

I am sure that Birtukan’s captors will snicker and giggle at the very idea of releasing her from prison. After all they have declared her release to be a “dead issue.” It does not matter if they giggle or heehaw; the truth about her unjust imprisonment and abject prison conditions will be told and re-told a million times to the world. I also do not believe that prisoners of hatred, prejudice and narrow-mindedness have the moral capacity or basic human decency to set Birtukan or any other prisoner free. Only the “truth shall set her free”; and if Birtukan were to read my words here, she would gently correct me and say: “The truth shall set them free too from nineteen years of solitary confinement behind the locked steel bars and stone walls of hatred, prejudice and narrow-mindedness”.

MELKAM ADIS AMET! HAPPY NEW YEAR! Our Great Sister and Ethiopia’s First Daughter Birtukan Invictus (Ayibegere)! The truth shall set you free!